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What's Trending: White Oak


This will be the first in a series we’re calling What’s Trending, where we take a look at some of the most popular styles in woodworking. To kick this off, we’re going to look at that old standard- white oak.

White oak is one of those classic wood species for some damned good reasons- it stains and finishes well, it’s a sustainable species, and it’s extremely durable. And if you can get quarter sawn white oak, the ray flecks add a ton of visual interest to a furniture piece. Craftspeople and woodworkers have known this for decades; you can trace a clear line from the Craftsman designs of Gustav Stickley or the Mission style of Charles Limbert, to the Arts & Crafts movement that originated in England in the late nineteenth century- white oak has been the wood of choice for over a hundred and fifty years. It’s sometimes relegated to the background in favor of other, flashier hardwoods- walnut comes to mind, as well as more unique species, such as spalted maple or beetle-kill pine- but white oak never really goes out of style.

White oak has been a popular choice as flooring material (for obvious reasons) for years, and while it almost seems a shame to walk on such a beautiful hardwood, that’s one of the other great things about white oak- its’ versatility. Flatsawn, it makes for great floor planks. Quarter sawn white oak? Furniture and panels will show off that figure. Got a steam box? It’s great for steam-bending. Making a boat? White oak is highly water resistant due to its’ closed cellular structure. And let’s not forget white oak’s contribution to both the wine and whiskey barrel- oak’s tannins impart a distinct flavor to whiskey in particular.

White oak deck chairsQuarter sawn white oak is a popular choice for anything built that will live outside- not only does it resist water, but bugs as well. To the left are some Adirondack chairs that I made for a friend out of white oak- he wanted something that would withstand the rain we get in Oregon, and something that would look good without a finish. Another friend of mine is patiently (very patiently) waiting on me to finish a simple patio table in quarter sawn white oak.

Of course, I always recommend applying some sort of protective finish to a project, indoor or out- and oak is one of those hardwoods that take a varnish, stain or dye easily. You can even “fume” it with ammonia; the result is a smoky, dark cast to the wood that still reveals the grain.

Here are some numbers to bring some perspective to the recent white oak explosion. In 2018, white oak slab (36” and wider) sales were up nearly 400% from 2017. White oak lumber sales were up almost 40%, and would have gone higher- unfortunately, we simply ran out of kiln dried material to sell. The biggest jump in lumber came in the form of quarter and rift sawn, as well as live edge pieces. It hasn’t been long, but it looks like 2019 will be another strong year for white oak.

White oak has a timelessness to it that we associate with stability, simplicity, and strength. It’s versatile, it looks good, and it’s a sustainable resource- oak trees are all over North America and Europe. Working in the timber industry, I see trends come and go- but white oak isn’t a trend, so much as a standard.

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